‘My story is still being written’: One man’s journey from homelessness

Thomas Lecky is one of 164 people who have gone from homelessness to living in a home under a new initiative in Atlanta
Thomas Lecky outside his new apartment in Decatur. In the summer of 2022, Lecky was sleeping in one of Atlanta’s largest and most visible encampments off Pryor Street.  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Thomas Lecky outside his new apartment in Decatur. In the summer of 2022, Lecky was sleeping in one of Atlanta’s largest and most visible encampments off Pryor Street. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The moment Thomas Lecky learned he was no longer homeless will forever be seared in his mind.

At first, it was exhilarating — Lecky felt as though he was living through a miracle. Disappointment soon followed, when he realized he didn’t have a single close friend with whom to share the news of this life-changing event.

Then came the stress. This is just too good to be true, he thought.

“I’m still processing,” Lecky said. “My name is Thomas, and I definitely can’t deny that I’m a doubting Thomas.”

Lecky is one of 164 people who have been housed since the fall through an aggressive campaign to get people who are homeless off the streets of Atlanta. In a span of eight months, Lecky has gone from living beneath a highway overpass in downtown Atlanta, to a motel, to a modest apartment near the outskirts of Decatur. His rent is being covered for an entire year, paid with a mix of donations and federal grants.

The stakes have never felt higher for Lecky, who views this home as a place where he can reshape the trajectory of his life. Now, he must put in the work: the emotional, physical, and practical work of putting himself back together.

In a moment of vulnerability, Lecky admits that he was unsure whether he should even do this interview.

“I wanted to be an example of a success story,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I’m still in transition. My story is still being written.”

A lucky break

Atlanta is in the midst of a sophisticated operation to reduce the number of people living on the streets. The city’s lead agency on homelessness response, Partners for Home, is working to clear homeless encampments while simultaneously moving the people into hotel rooms and shelters, with the end goal of moving people into more permanent housing.

The agency is teaming up with nonprofits around the city to reach its goal of housing 1,500 homeless people or families by December 2024. A local motel partner provides rooms where people stay temporarily until their housing is arranged.

Partners for Home has made progress, albeit slowly, since beginning the project. The biggest hurdle they currently face is finding landlords who will participate in the program and agree to take the tenants.

So far, the program has placed 164 formerly homeless people into a home of their own.

On April 21st, Lecky became one of those people.

He’s moved into a one-bedroom apartment. Although the apartment is tiny at 555 square feet, the place is still largely empty. Lecky has a bedroom set and mattress, toiletries, pots and pans, but not much else.

Lecky knows he’s lucky. Funny enough, his nickname at one point actually was “Lucky.”

“But I’ve never felt lucky in my whole life,” said Lecky, who is now 42. “Now, I think ‘How could I be this lucky?’”

That doesn’t mean the transition has been smooth.

In his new apartment, Lecky said he feels claustrophobic. He’s awake at all hours of the night and can only nap for two hours at a time. As he lays down, he turns on his phone and plays a video. That helps dull some of the racing thoughts in his mind — but only briefly.

He’s not letting the lack of sleep stop his pursuit of finding work. So far, he’s done some landscaping and is in the process of joining a local temp agency, which would employ him in fields like construction or warehouse logistics.

His ultimate goal is to find some kind of work that would allow him to make a bigger contribution to society. He’d love to one day work for Habitat for Humanity, or to be an employee with any kind of charitable organization.

“I just derive the most pleasure when I’m doing something good for others,” he said.

Lecky says his mental health is better than when he was living on the streets. For one, he’s baking again: Cheesecakes, specifically, and Lecky has the goal of one day selling them. It’s a cathartic, stress-relieving activity, he says. Doing anything creative, like baking, helps get rid of his obsessive thoughts.

His greatest mental challenge now is that he is fixating on the fact that he cannot take care of his own expenses. His rent is paid in full for 12 months, but he wonders what happens after that.

“Some people would feel like this is a party: Here I’ve got this free ride, this vacation. But I’m not wired that way,” he said.

“I can’t help but worry about the end point,” he said.

Thomas Lecky enters the bedroom in his Decatur apartment on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Lecky moved into his apartment a month ago. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

icon to expand image

‘Like the ninth ring of hell’

This year has marked the first time since 2012 that Lecky has had his own name on a mailbox.

Back then, Lecky bounced around for years. He worked low-paying jobs that made it difficult to get by, and ended up staying with friends, in cheap apartments, rooming houses, and then one day, on the streets. The singular event that ultimately pushed him into homelessness was an on-the-job injury, he says; He broke his ankle and injured his leg at work in 2019, which left him unable to work for a year. Everything quickly snowballed. He started falling behind on his rent and before he knew it, Lecky no longer had a place to live.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2022 when Lecky was sleeping in one of Atlanta’s largest and most visible encampments off Pryor Street, that stretched across two main roads.

Lecky had pitched a tent nestled among boulder-sized rocks that he says were brought in by the city as a deterrent to stop people from sleeping there. In an interview then with the AJC, he called it his “sweet spot” because it was directly underneath the highway overpass and protected him from the rain.

Before the camp was closed, he was hand-painting wooden signs and walking around the city to spread the word of God. The messages spoke for themselves: “Prayer works.” “GOD so loved the world He gave His only son. Whoever believes will have life everlasting.” “Love. Faith. Forgiveness. Gratitude.”

Those signs were reminders for him, too: Reminders to be kind, and to have hope.

“It’s hell,” Lecky said of living there at the time. “It feels like the ninth ring of hell. You’re always having to start over.”

Lecky displays his artwork at a homeless encampment on Pryor Street in Atlanta on Thursday, August 25, 2022.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Then, in early September, Lecky was chosen to move into the motel.

That transition wasn’t easy, Lecky said. The motel he stayed in was chaotic, with people blaring music and getting into physical fights. There were also restrictions: a nightly curfew at 10 p.m. and room inspections on a weekly basis. And access to food wasn’t as readily available as it had been under the bridge.

On the streets, Lecky ate poorly but well at the same time. Poorly, because the food he was consuming was high in carbs, sugar, and cholesterol. But well, because there was just so much of it, from church volunteers and do-gooders.

When he moved into the hotel, Lecky said he started experiencing longer bouts of hunger. The Gateway Center, the organization that manages the hotel, disputed the lack of food, saying that Lecky was offered meals three times a week in addition to Kroger $25 gift cards and food box donations. Starting in March, they were given approval to offer meals four times a week.

The Gateway Center also said the curfew was not mandatory, and that while there were some fights, the hotel was safe to live in.

“There have been some arguments and some altercations between program participants, however this program site remains safe for guests, staff and visitors,” William Caraway, director for residential services at the Gateway Center, said in a statement.

During his time at the motel, Lecky also made gains that benefited all areas of his life. He credits Intown Cares, a nonprofit that is working with Partners for Home.

A caseworker, Tanya Davenport, helped get him on food stamps, otherwise known as SNAP. Pocketing a few hundred dollars each month for food has been a godsend. He’s also now been to a doctor and gotten his diabetes under control for the first time in years. He describes his caseworker as the “most selfless person” and a “quintessential humanitarian.”

While he was living on the streets, Lecky had his wallet stolen from him that held his green card that has given him status since he moved as a child from Jamaica, his Social Security card, and his state ID card. In the time he was at the motel, he’s been able to get nearly all of those documents back.

Even so, asking for that help has undoubtedly been the hardest part of this experience.

“I’m a very proud person, that’s the reason I was on the street. I’d rather be on the street than deal with the things I was dealing with,” he said. “I was working so hard and not able to pay the bills, while having so many goals and wishes.”

Housing the homeless

To curb homelessness, Atlanta is betting on a widely used philosophy that’s known as “housing first,” or the idea that a homeless person can best succeed when given a place to live, combined with other services. This theory is at odds with other philosophies for addressing homelessness, which instead require people to reach certain milestones first. For example, if someone is struggling with sobriety, they would need to become sober before getting access to more permanent housing.

During the pandemic, Atlanta ran a similar program, and the results were promising. They placed 832 people who were homeless into housing. Since then, just a small fraction of those people have returned to homelessness, according to Partners for Home.

Partners for Home is still in the process of closing encampments, and has shut down about 10 so far.

Closing an encampment isn’t without challenges and controversies: Some advocates have said these closures are disruptive and destabilizing to the people living there. Partners for Home said they are taking a compassionate approach to closing encampments, by informing people beforehand so they have time to gather their belongings and prepare.

More broadly, publicly available data show that homelessness has been on the decline in Atlanta.

In 2015, there were 4,317 homeless people in the city, of which more than 1,000 people were living outside shelters, according to an annual survey of people who are homeless. By 2022, that number was cut by more than half: In total, 2,017 homeless people were counted in the city, of which 640 people were living on the streets.

The data is imperfect, because it’s based on a survey of homeless people either on one night, or throughout several days in January. It also doesn’t account for people who are unstably housed in hotels or living with family members. This year’s survey results are expected to be released within the next few weeks.

Leaving behind a legacy

Thomas Lecky sits in the living room in his Decatur apartment on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

icon to expand image

Lecky has always had an appetite for learning. In the early 2000s, he was living in New York, working as a security guard for a museum filled with German Expressionist art. He manned the elevator and the museum allowed him to pass the time by reading. And so he read just about anything he could get his hands on, including books on finance, investing and entrepreneurship. Some of the art curators taught him basic French and German, he said.

“I would go home at night and read accounting books,” he said. “My brain had a voracious need to learn.”

Lecky wants to learn, he says, and do something greater with this new start. Even though he’s still young, he finds himself right now thinking a lot about the end of his life, and making sure he doesn’t leave this earth without adding value to society.

“I want a legacy, however small,” he said.